Myanmar curfew returns calm, Muslims pray in peace

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Muslims in Myanmar's second-largest city said early morning prayers in peace Friday after an overnight curfew restored calm following two nights of violent rampages by extremist Buddhists.

Authorities imposed the curfew in Mandalay late Thursday after attacks on minority Muslims left two people dead and 14 injured, raising fears that ethnic violence that has plagued the country for two years may escalate again.

The Mandalay regional government posted details of the attacks on its website Friday, identifying the fatalities for the first time and noting that a group of 50 people including 20 Buddhist monks took part. Mandalay Chief Minister Ye Myint said four people were arrested.

Muslim-owned shops reopened in areas where Buddhist mobs on motorbikes had driven through the streets wielding sticks and hurling stones.

"We were able to say our prayers peacefully, and we all had a good night sleep," said resident Tin Aung.

He and others questioned, however, why the government waited two days to clamp down on the mobs who damaged at least one mosque, shops and torched cars.

"If authorities had taken prompt and immediate action, deaths and damage could have been prevented," said A Mar Ni, a member of a citizens' conflict prevention committee.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, has been grappling with violence since 2012 that has left up to 280 people dead and 140,000 others homeless, most of them Muslims attacked by Buddhist militants. Most of it has taken place in western Rakhine state.

This week's unrest was the first in Mandalay, an important center of Buddhist culture and learning where Muslims and Buddhists have traditionally lived peacefully together.

The government's website identified the dead as Soe Min Htway, a Muslim who was attacked by a Buddhist mob while on his way to mosque before dawn Thursday, and Tun Tun, a 30-year-old Buddhist who was attacked by a group of Muslims earlier in the night.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia broadcast Thursday night, Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the opposition National League for Democracy, said the violence in Mandalay could escalate if authorities did not take strong measures.

"Unless the authorities seriously maintain the rule of law, violence will grow," she said. Inflammatory material posted on social media had contributed to the instability, she said, a viewpoint shared by Mandalay police chief Col. Zaw Win Aung.

In a radio address Thursday, President Thein Sein called for stability as the country transitions to democracy from a half-century of military rule, but did not mention Mandalay specifically.

"For reforms to be successful, I would like to urge all to avoid instigation and behavior that incites hatred in our fellow citizens," Thein Sein said.

The latest unrest, which started Tuesday night, followed rumors that the Muslim owner of a teashop had raped a Buddhist woman, said Khin Maung Oo, secretary of the city's Myanmar Muslim Youth Religious Convention Center. An Information Ministry statement on Wednesday said the owner had been charged with rape.

Authorities deployed hundreds of police on Tuesday after a crowd of more than 300 Buddhists marched to the teashop, singing the national anthem. Police fired rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowd but failed to control groups that scattered into the streets, throwing stones at a mosque that caused minor damage to its exterior, while others ransacked Muslim-owned shops. Several cars were set on fire or had windows shattered by stones and bricks.

Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.

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